Reviewed: September 3, 2007
Released: August 28, 2007
Move over Stubbs the Zombie and make way for Dead Head Fred, the most recent undead gaming hero to come along in quite some time in this totally fun and totally irreverent PSP adventure. Dead Head Fred draws players into an original 1940’s inspired alternative universe where players will experience an innovative and refreshing twist on Action gameplay as they collect, upgrade and switch the heads of enemies on the fly to strategically fight enemies in a story of revenge and redemption.
As private detective Fred Neuman, savagely murdered and then resurrected in a bizarre scientific experiment without his memory or his head, players embark on a quest for vengeance as they solve their own murder by using the severed heads of enemies to battle their way through challenging but bizarre environments. Each of the 9 different heads offer a unique gameplay mechanic as players utilize special tactics and puzzle solving to strategically progress through the game.
Dead Head Fred doesn’t waste your time with a lot of setup or backstory. You begin the game on the operating table of a mad scientist who has recovered your discarded body from the toxic waste dump. And while the man who had you killed only wanted your head as a trophy your brain (and eyeballs) have been relocated into a large glass jar full of green goo that now sits atop your neck stump.
With no memory and a brain-in-a-jar for a head, Fred must set off to exact his revenge and solve the mystery he was trying to unravel when he ended up dead in the first place. The whole decapitation thing not only serves as a fun visual gag, it actually becomes the most important element to the core game design.
Fred has the ability to switch out heads at will from any in his current collection. The levels and puzzles are strategically setup to make the use out of specific heads at certain times creating some of the game’s more inspired moments of brilliance. Plus, there is this wacky guy in the cemetery who collects heads and for every five heads you can bring back he will keep four and give you the other. You can also visit his…wait for it…”Head Shop” to obtain upgraded powers for your existing cranial inventory, but these cost money so keep your “eyes out” (pun intended) for cash.
The heads are great fun and often disgusting in their appearance and function. The Corpse head is able to consume mass quantities of liquid like gas to breath fire or weed killer to shrivel up vines blocking an exit. The Stone head allows you to sink to the bottom of a body of water and breath underwater until you can exit safely. The Shrunken head shrinks you down to rat size so you can search areas you could never reach otherwise.
Each of the 9 heads has their own attacks and often a passive ability for Fred. Knowing when and how to use these heads is the key element in getting through the story and winning the game. There are 12 massive levels or areas in the game and you’ll unlock them slowly as you make your way through the story and then use a nifty manhole system to quickly warp to any area you want using the map screen. You’ll definitely need to use this system since many early levels contain secrets that you cannot unlock until you have acquired certain heads much further into the game.
Combat is handled with a nice punch system that you can combo for a stun move and once stunned execute a grapple to rip the head from your victim with a nice shower of red stuff. Yes, the game is bloody and it’s rated M for a reason. In addition to gallons of spilt plasma, the story and dialogue is of an adult nature with the occasional F-bomb being dropped…not excessively, and usually with humorous (because it’s unexpected) results.
In addition to combos and finishing moves there is a nice counterattack system that is also specific to the head you are wearing at the time. It’s a pretty robust combat system and one that you’ll have fun exploring and mastering for several hours. For the most part the controls are solid with the exception of the multipurpose right trigger that serves as the block button in combat as well as locking your analog pad so you can rotate the camera around Fred. It also serves as an attack modifier when combined with an attack button. This can be too much at times, especially when you need to adjust the camera during combat.
When you get outnumbered, which is often, you can execute a repulsive strike that sends out a shockwave of energy stunning and damaging anybody in range. You can actually kill enemies with repeated uses but it’s best to stun them then rip their heads off for bigger rewards.
Dead Head Fred is a long and large adventure and aside from the core mission you’ll encounter several characters who will have various detective-style side-quests for you to do. These are purely optional, but if you do take them on the rewards will certainly make your main objective go a lot easier. There are also a handful of hilarious and irreverent mini-games that you just have to see to believe. These will keep you coming back long after the main game is completed.
Your detective’s notebook is a great source of where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Rarely did I ever get stuck to the point where I couldn’t proceed, and then it only took a bit of backtracking to find some missing clues. The entire experience is a unique blend of tasteless humor and plenty of old-fashioned bloody violence. The gameplay is a great mix of adventure, action, and puzzle solving and with you combine it with the aforementioned presentation style, you have something really special.
The visuals for Dead Head Fred are amazing, even by console standards, let alone the PSP. The backgrounds are rich with details and there is excellent textures and 3D models. The characters are larger than life, both in their style and on-screen presence. Fred’s animation is awkward, much like a walking corpse with amnesia, and his brain and eyes float and tip realistically in the jar as he moves around. The rest of the cast all have unique designs and fun animation to punctuate their personalities.
The other heads (that aren't in a jar) all have eerie glowing eyes and cool visual effects to go along with the special attacks and passive abilities. There are all sorts of awesome combat and supernatural visual effects going on, and these are displayed brilliantly against backgrounds that are dark and sinister, yet not too dark to appreciate the flashy details.
The cutscenes all use game graphics for seamless blending between story and gameplay. The HUD is fun and limited to the edges of the screen and the map and journal screens are easy on the eyes and informative. This is the way a PSP game should be done…full of style and polish.
The first thing that greets you when you start Dead Head Fred is a news broadcast in the background, and it only takes about 30 seconds of listening to realize you are in for a real audio treat. And that’s even before John McGinley (Scrubs, Office Space) starts punching up the dialogue with some of the best conversation and one-liners in PSP history. With witty lines like, “if I had a mouth I’d throw up on you”, you’ll be laughing so hard you might not be able to play the game. There is even more humor during the reload screens after you die and the rest of the support cast turn in truly memorable performances. This is a great script and wonderfully acted.
There is a nice variety of combat effects, both for melee, like the sickly tearing of a neck stump followed by the swoosh of a geyser of blood. Expect plenty of other direct effects like fire burning, water running, and electrical discharges. There are plenty of eerie environmental effects that bring the levels to sinister life as well as a wonderfully creepy and interactive score that dynamically shifts to fit the action and mood of the level.
Dead Head Fred is easily a 12-15 hour game and that is just a casual pass through the story. If you are determined to complete all the side quests and return to previous levels to obtain the bonus items, not to mention all the time you’ll be spending with the addictive mini-games, a solid 30+ hour game is lurking in the darkness.
There is no multiplayer, and I’m sure somebody will complain about it, but frankly, this game neither requires nor would benefit from it. It might have been cool to have some kind of Wi-Fi trading system for all the crap you collect, but personally, I appreciated the extra focus Vicious Cycle put into the single player experience. It really paid off.
Dead Head Fred is one of my top favorite PSP games of the year. I haven’t had this much fun with a corpse since that frat party back in…err…I mean since Stubbs on the Xbox.
D3Publisher is really starting to come alive with some great and original titles and everyone with a PSP owes it to themselves to check out the coolest dead guy in a video game this year. You might just laugh your head off.